McMilliam v. Monroe County Alabama

Citation117 S.Ct. 1734,520 U.S. 781,138 L.Ed.2d 1
Decision Date02 June 1997
Docket Number96542
PartiesWalter McMILLIAN, Petitioner, v. MONROE COUNTY, ALABAMA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus *

After spending six years on Alabama's death row, petitioner's capital murder conviction was reversed on the ground that the State had suppressed exculpatory evidence. He then sued respondent Monroe County and others under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for the allegedly unconstitutional actions of, inter alios, County Sheriff Tom Tate in suppressing the evidence. A county is liable under §1983 for those actions of its sheriff that constitute county "policy.'' Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037-2038, 56 L.Ed.2d 611. The District Court dismissed the claims, holding that Tate's unlawful acts did not represent Monroe County's policy, because an Alabama county has no authority to make law enforcement policy. The Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that a sheriff acting in his law enforcement capacity is not a policymaker for the county.

Held: Alabama sheriffs, when executing their law enforcement duties, represent the State of Alabama, not their counties. Pp. ____-____.

(a) In determining a local government's §1983 liability, a court's task is to identify those who speak with final policymaking authority for the local governmental actor concerning the action alleged to have caused the violation at issue. Jett v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737, 109 S.Ct. 2702, 2723-2724, 105 L.Ed.2d 598. The parties agree that Sheriff Tate has final policymaking authority in the area of law enforcement, but they disagree about whether Alabama sheriffs are policymakers for the State or the county when acting in their law enforcement capacity. In deciding this dispute, the question is not whether Alabama sheriffs act as county or state officials in all of their official actions, but whom they represent in a particular area or on a particular issue. Ibid. This inquiry is dependent on the definition of the official's functions under relevant state law. Cf. Regents of University of California v. Doe, 519 U.S. ----, ----, 117 S.Ct. 900, 904, 137 L.Ed.2d 55. Pp. ____-____.

(b) The Court defers considerably to the Court of Appeals' expertise in interpreting Alabama law, see Jett, supra, at 738, 109 S.Ct., at 2724, and concludes that the State's constitutional provisions concerning sheriffs, the historical development of those provisions, and the interpretation given them by the State Supreme Court strongly support Monroe County's contention that sheriffs represent the State when acting in their law enforcement capacity. The relevant portions of the Alabama Code, although less compelling, also support this conclusion. Code provisions cutting in favor of the conclusion that sheriffs are county officials are insufficient to tip the balance in petitioner's favor. Pp. ____-____.

(c) The Court rejects petitioner's arguments that the result here will create a lack of uniformity in Alabama-by allowing 67 county sheriffs to have different state law enforcement policies in their counties-and throughout the country-by permitting sheriffs to be classified as state officials in some States and county officials in others. The common law itself envisioned the possibility that state law enforcement "policies'' might vary locally, as particular sheriffs adopted varying practices for arresting criminals or securing evidence. And the Nation's federal nature allows the States wide authority to set up their state and local governments as they wish. Petitioner's and his amici's concern that state and local governments will manipulate local officials' titles in a blatant effort to shield local governments from liability is foreclosed by St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 127, 108 S.Ct. 915, 926, 99 L.Ed.2d 107 (per curiam). Pp. ____-____.

88 F.3d 1573 (C.A.11 1996), affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined.

Bryan A. Stevenson, New York City, for petitioner.

Paul M. Smith, for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner sued Monroe County, Alabama under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for allegedly unconstitutional actions taken by Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate. If the sheriff's actions constitute county "policy,'' then the county is liable for them. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037-2038, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). The parties agree that the sheriff is a "policymaker'' for §1983 purposes, but they disagree about whether he is a policymaker for Monroe County or for the State of Alabama. We hold that, as to the actions at issue here, Sheriff Tate represents the State of Alabama and is therefore not a county policymaker. We thus affirm the Court of Appeals' dismissal of petitioner's §1983 claims against Monroe County.

I

In November 1986, Ronda Morrison was murdered in Monroe County, a sparsely populated county located in southwest Alabama. Petitioner and one Ralph Myers were indicted for this crime. Myers then pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and testified against petitioner at his trial. A jury convicted petitioner of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to death. After two remands, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed petitioner's conviction, holding that the State had violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), by suppressing statements from Myers that contradicted his trial testimony and other exculpatory evidence. McMillian v. State, 616 So.2d 933, 942-948 (1993). Thus, after spending six years in prison, petitioner was released.

He then brought this §1983 lawsuit in the District Court for the Middle District of Alabama against respondent Monroe County and numerous officials, including the three men in charge of investigating the Morrison murder-Tom Tate, the Sheriff of Monroe County; Larry Ikner, an investigator with the District Attorney's office in Monroe County; and Simon Benson, an investigator with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Only two of the officials were sued in their official capacities-Sheriff Tate and investigator Ikner-and it is only these official-capacity suits that concern us here. 1 Petitioner principally alleged that Tate and Ikner, in their capacities as officials of Monroe County, not as officers of the State of Alabama, intimidated Myers into making false statements and suppressed exculpatory evidence. App. to Pet. for Cert. 26a-33a; McMillian v. Johnson, 878 F.Supp. 1473, 1486-1488 (M.D.Ala.1995).

The District Court dismissed the claims against Monroe County and the claims against Tate and Ikner in their official capacities. The court held that "any unlawful acts of Defendants Tate and Ikner cannot be said to represent [Monroe] County's policy,'' because "an Alabama county has [no] authority to make policy in the area of law enforcement.'' App. to Pet. for Cert. 55a. Petitioner appealed the District Court's decision as to Sheriff Tate. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the District Court that "Sheriff Tate is not a final policymaker for Monroe County in the area of law enforcement, because Monroe County has no law enforcement authority.'' McMillian v. Johnson, 88 F.3d 1573, 1583 (1996). We granted certiorari, 519 U.S. ----, 117 S.Ct. 554, 136 L.Ed.2d 436 (1996), and now affirm.

II
A

We held in Monell, 436 U.S., at 694, 98 S.Ct., at 2037-2038, that a local government is liable under §1983 for its policies that cause constitutional torts. These policies may be set by the government's lawmakers, "or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy.'' Ibid. A court's task is to "identify those officials or governmental bodies who speak with final policymaking authority for the local governmental actor concerning the action alleged to have caused the particular constitutional or statutory violation at issue.'' Jett v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737, 109 S.Ct. 2702, 2724, 105 L.Ed.2d 598 (1989). Here, the parties agree that Sheriff Tate has "final policymaking authority'' in the area of law enforcement. They sharply disagree, however, about whether Alabama sheriffs are policymakers for the State or for the county when they act in a law enforcement capacity. 2

In deciding this dispute, our inquiry is guided by two principles. First, the question is not whether Sheriff Tate acts for Alabama or Monroe County in some categorical, "all or nothing'' manner. Our cases on the liability of local governments under §1983 instruct us to ask whether governmental officials are final policymakers for the local government in a particular area, or on a particular issue. See Jett, 491 U.S., at 737, 109 S.Ct., at 2724 (court must identify "those officials who have the power to make official policy on a particular issue'' (emphasis added)); id., at 738, 109 S.Ct., at 2724 (question is whether school district superintendent "possessed final policymaking authority in the area of employee transfers'' (emphasis added)); St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 123, 108 S.Ct. 915, 924, 99 L.Ed.2d 107 (1988) (plurality opinion) (" [T]he challenged action must have been taken pursuant to a policy adopted by the official or officials responsible under state law for making policy in that area of the city's business'' (emphasis added)). Thus, we are not seeking to make a characterization of Alabama sheriffs that will hold true for every type of official action they engage in. We simply ask whether Sheriff Tate represents the State or the county when he acts in a law enforcement capacity.

Second, our inquiry is dependent on an analysis of state law. Cf. Jett, supra, at 737, 109 S.Ct., at 2723 (""[W]hether a...

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